The snow swirled around the eight figures. They stood, shaking their heads, arms crossed, and shoulders hunched against the cold. They’d been standing there about ten minutes, staring at the PVC pipe that was raised a foot off the ground and at the herd of horses that seemed unconcerned. The predominating sense amongst the group was that these horses were not going to go over this obstacle.
“Come on, let’s just go,” one of the group members called out, gesturing back toward the building, and one by one they walked into the arena and stood out of the wind and snow, trying to warm up. They looked out at the horses, the two facilitators, and the one peer who had not followed.
Standing inside the wind-sheltered arena, one of them glanced under their coat sleeve at their watch. “We still have 45 minutes left.” Several of them sighed, their breath billowing out in a foggy cloud.
Today’s session activity had been to move at least one horse over the PVC pipe obstacle – the obstacle was to represent what gets in their way of reaching their treatment goals in recovery. There it was… only a foot off the ground… and yet the horses wouldn’t go over it.
The consensus of the group was that none of the horses were doing what they were supposed to do! They all stood out in the snowstorm mildly munching hay, tails towards the wind. Didn’t they have the sense to get out of the storm? Didn’t they know what they were supposed to do?
Watching from the relative comfort of the wind-sheltered arena they saw the peer that had stayed outside walk further into the pasture toward the far fence where one of the horses was hunkered against the wind. Reaching the horse, the peer stepped onto the leeward side and stayed, his arm coming up around the horse’s neck.
They stood that way for several minutes, and then slowly began walking together back towards the arena, their heads both bowed and turned slightly to the side, the horse’s ears slanted back, trying to keep out the driven snow.
The rest of the group stood in the arena and watched as they approached together. Amazingly the horse walked all the way up to the PVC pipe obstacle and sniffed it. They stood at the pipe — their peer and the horse. Then the peer stepped over the obstacle, turning back toward the horse who stood on the other side of the small obstacle, blinking slowly. The peer encouraged him – patting his thigh, calling to the horse, clucking. The horse didn’t move.
“Come here and help me!” he yelled toward the arena, where the rest of their peers watched and waited. Somewhat reluctantly they all filed out and went to stand with their peer, looking across the obstacle towards the horse that stood there, the wind at their backs. The horse didn’t move.
One by one they began gesturing, clapping, calling, clucking and trying to invite the horse to step over. The horse stood and looked at them, its head slightly to the side, again trying to keep the wind-driven snow out of its ears.
“This isn’t working!” one of them called over the wind. A feeling of futility began to descend over the group again.
“Wait, you guys. Look, we are standing right where it would need to go to get over. Let’s try getting out of his way.” As a unit, all of them stepped back and aside from the obstacle and waited.
Just like that the horse stepped over the obstacle, kicking it down with his last foot as he stepped over. The group’s voices rose in celebration until the horse’s hoof clipped the pipe and it fell to the ground, “Ooooh, man! He knocked it over!”
Gathering together then, around the horse — patting him, one of the peers said, “do we need to do it again since he knocked it over?”
“Come on! Let’s go talk out of the wind,” another called.
Everyone headed over to the arena, with the horse following. There they met with the facilitators and began to discuss what had just happened, everyone talking at once, their voices rising animatedly…
“Does it count? He knocked it over!”
“Who is to say that what we need in our recovery can’t knock down our obstacles and make them easier to clear!”
“Did you see how we just needed to get out of his way!?”
“That horse to me represented my higher power – we had to get out of the way of higher power!”
A pause in the excited processing. And then a voice ventured forth, “I realize what my obstacle was…” said one of the peers who had gone into the arena and watched and waited until the end to come back out.
“It was me.” They shook their head. “My obstacle was me. I shut down. I didn’t want to be uncomfortable…” Several group members nodded, feeling the familiarity of that statement and seeing it in themselves and their behaviors and reaction. “I am the biggest obstacle to my own recovery!”
“But then you led the way,” a peer said to the person who had walked back with the horse. “You didn’t give up! How come you stayed out there when the rest of us went in?”
“That was my higher power out there, I knew I had to remember my higher power.”
“Then you and your higher power walked back together…”
“And we had to surrender and give it room…”
“And then it went over, making the obstacle smaller than it was before!”
“And now we’re together – with the horse!”
“We can’t give up!”
“And we need each other…”
Patting the horse, they headed into the warm group room with a knowing of what it felt like to block their own recovery, and what it took to get out of it. They left the farm that day with a new appreciation that their addiction didn’t stop or take a break when the weather got bad, and their recovery couldn’t either.
EAGALA is an acronym for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an international non-profit organization that was founded in 1999.
In pastures and arenas all over the world, people are finding EAGALA Model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and it is helping them discover more about themselves and learn how to lead healthier and happier lives. Founded in 1999, EAGALA is the gold standard when it comes to equine assisted psychotherapy and is known for its main tenets of: strong code of ethics, requiring a team approach of a qualified mental health professional and an equine specialist, the work is done 100% on the ground, and it is solution oriented.
This is therapy with a twist, bringing the learning to life! An experiential therapy that is about doing and experiencing, rather than keeping it at the level of talking, the EAGALA Model helps people discover new insight and perspectives on blocks and struggles. Children, adolescents, and adults find solutions, skills, and strengths in the pasture that are then translated to behaviors outside of the pasture. Providing help in the areas of mental health and wellness, addictions recovery, and military, family, and community support services; individuals and groups are finding hope and healing through the powerful experience of working with horses.
Heather Jeffrey is the Program Director at Acres for Life, Therapy & Wellness Center in Chisago City, MN.